Courtesy Leon Worden | SCVHistory.com
An extensive new roster of the victims of the St. Francis Dam Failure that occurred in 1928 has been released in time for the tragedy’s 86th anniversary.
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Ann Stansell, a graduate student from California State University, Northridge, compiled the roster, which is the first substantial attempt to identify as many of the victims of the dam-failure tragedy as possible. Stansell chose the St. Francis dam disaster as the topic of her thesis.
Regarded as one of the worst man-made disasters in California history, engineer William Mulholland’s St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon failed on March 12, 1928, at 11:57 p.m., causing a 140-foot wall of water to pour into the canyon, killing an estimated 500 people and causing damage valued at $13 million at the time.
Construction on the dam began in 1924 and was completed in 1926, standing at 205 feet tall. Only two years later it failed, sending 13 billion gallons of water plunging down on Santa Clarita Valley residents and workers.
“Nobody questioned (Mulholland’s) word, and he decided to put the dam there,” said E.J. Stephens, Santa Clarita historian, tour guide and coauthor of “Legendary Locals of the Santa Clarita Valley. “They didn’t choose the best site. They didn’t use the best materials, and it came crashing down just a few hours after he said it was fine. It was leaking at the time, and some of the dam keepers were alarmed, but Mulholland said, ‘It’s fine; all dams do that.’”
Many of the victims were farm workers with no surviving relatives or none who could be tracked down by relief and recovery workers at the time, and not all victims were found right away.
Many were buried under silt and wreckage from the 13 billion gallons of water as it travelled 54 miles from Saugus to the Pacific ocean, and some washed out to sea. Bodies were still turning up in the late 1950s, one as late as 1994, making the identification of the victims nearly impossible.
In October 2011, Stansell began her journey to do just that when she selected the St. Francis dam failure as the topic of her thesis at CSUN, making the decision to focus on the “humanity” of the disaster rather than the commonly discussed engineering aspects about what went wrong.
Stansell spent two and a half years examining files from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, morgue records and claim files, coroner’s inquest reports, obituaries and newspaper stories and followed any leads that came up.
Among the stories Stansell discovered by contacting living relatives and descendants of victims is that of Joe Gottardi, a farmer whose wife and five children were found in piles of debris, as well as that of John Traxler, a little boy whose body William S. Hart dressed in a cowboy outfit and who was initially unidentified.
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In addition to the roster, Stansell compiled photographs of the final resting places of every identifiable victim, which she discovered wasn’t limited to the Santa Clara River Valley or even to California. She discovered graves as far away as New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Oahu.
Stansell’s list of victims is the most complete list that’s ever been compiled, identifying some as dam victims for the first time while disproving others previously thought to be dam victims.
As of February 22, 2014, her list of victims includes 306 recovered bodies, of which 240 were identified, and 125 missing persons, including 79 for whom death claims were made and paid out– bringing the grand total to 431 individuals, 306 of whom can now be identified by name, age, familial relationships, community of residence and the identification of the specific makeshift Red Cross morgue that handled each of their bodies.
For Santa Clarita residents interested in learning more about the disaster and viewing the site, the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society has scheduled a lecture and bus tour to the dam site with dam expert Frank Rock on March 29 at the Saugus Train Station Museum.
The lecture is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. and is free to attend, while tickets for the dam tour at 12 p.m. are $35 per person. For more information and to make reservations, call 661-254-1275.